Africa has been in the headlines for a while now, and not just for the same old reasons of poverty and illness. The continent has moved into the fashion world over the last few years, among other reasons thanks to the high quality of traditional crafts, their creativity and colorfulness, and the recent economic gains. Its rising fashion influence strays from the usual images of beauty and elegance that frequently appear in the leading fashion magazines such as Vogue; handmade items appeal to top fashion industry executives and traditional African fabrics draw in and inspire designers, and on the runways the spotlight is on African style.
For that reason, Odelia Arnold's summer collection, which uses original African fabrics, is likely to be seen as another attempt to piggyback on the latest trend. However, the 32-year-old designer's interest in Africa preceded this and even if her collection is benefiting from good timing, its roots trace back to Arnold's travels around the world when she was in her early 20s.
The impressive collection of fabric swatches collected from the places she visited, which are now housed in the studio of her north Tel Aviv apartment, is a souvenir of that era. Then it served as the raw material for designing stage costumes for circus artists and acrobats, and since her return to Israel in 2006, it's been used for designing special outfits for fashion shows, television ads, musical ensemble and dance troupe performances. Lately it is also functioning as the starting point for her fashion designs.
About five years ago, Arnold completed a course in image building run by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Employment, but she learned the basic sewing skills before then, in her parents' home. Her mother is a textile designer and her father is an architect from a family of tailors (his sister was the costume designer for the Cardiff Opera House, his grandmother worked in the Queen's service ), and he taught her how to sew. "I was always interested in fabrics and as funny as it sounds, from a very young age, I'd dress up my dolls," she says. The colorful patched blanket that her father sewed from square pieces of fabric in a slew of patterns, which covers a large sofa in the living room, shows that her emotional connection to fabrics has deep roots.
Odelia Arnold Fashions
Until about a year ago, she worked as Dorin Frankfurt's assistant in Tel Aviv. Arnold says she has very fond memories from the two-and-a-half years she spent working with the veteran designer, noting that the most important lesson she learned was "that you can design fashions for a specific goal or agenda, and do so intuitively, without expending excess energy." Even though she says leaving was hard for both of them, Arnold felt the time had come for her to go out on her own.
Her first independent effort in the fashion world came last winter, when she designed a mini collection that was sold at Tel Aviv's Mahteret Boutique, which has since closed. "It was truly a collage of all sorts of fabrics I picked up over the years," she says. "This fabric collection has started dwindling over time, but I'm not worried. I've noticed that gradually I'm starting to work in a more organized manner, and so it's based less on the swatches I have and what can be done with them."
The starting point of the current collection is Africa and its fabrics and traditional dress. "It's something I wanted to do for a long time. When I lived in South Africa, I was very enamored of the African fabrics, the wealth of colors and styles of the prints and the abundance of material in the festive outfits the women wore to go to church on Sunday. It seemed very pretty, but I wanted to take this in a more tailored, Western direction that I could also wear." She shows a knee-length, jaunty skirt and jacket set and strapped camisole, both in blue fabric with a print of black and white spots, and burning hot yellow suns, as well as another suit with a short, smooth skirt and a top styled like a bra, made of dirty white fabric with green foliage print. Given what she said, it is not surprising to see influences ranging from the ample-sized feminine look to the disciplined uniforms of schoolgirls. Most of the jackets have a high waist skirt and a top that sits just above that, in order to expose a bit of the upper part of the stomach. A lovely dress with a wave print in shades of blue, green and brown-gold, includes a white swath of light gray fabric that clings to the hips and above that an adorned opening that reveals the stomach.
"I allow myself to say that my cuts are a little conservative," she says, adding that she does what comes naturally to her and does not always understand it fully. Nevertheless, she points out that the inclusion of the colorful fabrics guided her to maintain a certain simplicity and clean lines in building the cuts, in order not to overburden the eye. Her original aim was to create suits and dresses for daytime wear, and to her delight, customers are receiving it favorably. A tailored white cotton dress with gray dots and a neckline cut from African-patterned blue and yellow fabric offers what she calls "touches of Africa." Another dress, with a similar cut, is from red fabric with the precise quality of a Japanese animated film. It has intricate patterns in black and yellow on top, as if it were another layer, floating over pink, purple and maroon flowers. A version of the dress, like the one that exposes the upper belly, cut from fabric with abstract splotches in shades of green, shows the crucial importance in this case of the choice of a specific fabric and combining it with other fabrics to design the final product.
The fabrics are an underlying force in the collection, and therefore the designer's efforts to moderate the African influence of the fabrics in the more casual items were minimal and weakened the collection as a whole. A wide cut t-shirt dress with short, narrow sleeves was cut from sturdy black fabric that fell heavily flopped and created interesting proportions. In contrast, another version in a black-and-gray striped jersey print, a striped knit t-shirt in light blue and white, or a white t-shirt in a loose cut with a pinkish pocket on the side looked very similar to items from other local designers who focus on creating a casual, urban wardrobe. Arnold describes this as a desire to balance the impact of African influences in the collection and offer clothes that will easily coordinate with the other styles, but the casual jerseys she designed with rounded doll necklines made of African prints are a better effort at that. The ability to design strong styles is not necessarily a sign of ability to design a cohesive and carefully thought out collection, but it is a skill that can be developed over time. It is possible that it is a matter of concentration. It seems that Arnold's design style is still not fully formed in her mind. "I try to do something that is natural for me in terms of style," she says. "I'm not trying to produce something that's not me." Despite the charming naivete in her comments, she will benefit if she reins in her emotions, the playful approach and the daring she is demonstrating when it comes to color and patterns and manages to attain a more determined and thoughtful position.
Prices: blouses, NIS 80-350; skirts, NIS 350-450 shekels; dresses, NIS 250-680 shekels; two-piece sets, NIS 650-800 shekels. Odelia Arnold, 5 Hadera Street, Tel Aviv. Advance appointment required: 0524-7642076.
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